Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

By Larry M. Bartels | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Do Americans Care about Inequality?

THE ANALYSIS PRESENTED in chapter 4 suggests that much of the Republican Party's electoral success in the post-war era—and thus, much of the escalation in economic inequality associated with Republican administrations and policies—is a by-product of partisan biases in economic accountability. From the standpoint of democratic theory, that is a peculiarly unsatisfying conclusion. As good democrats, we like to think that government policy stems, directly or indirectly, from the Will of the People. If it stems instead from such irrelevant quirks of voter psychology as myopia, misperceptions, and responsiveness to campaign spending, the warm glow seems distinctly diminished.

Democratic optimists, however, will note that elections are by no means the only possible avenue by which the Will of the People may shape public policy. Political science provides many examples of analyses demonstrating significant direct effects of public opinion on public policy, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats happen to be in charge.1 Thus, my accounts of policy making in chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 will involve careful weighing of the apparent influence of public sentiment on one hand and partisan elite ideology on the other.

Assessing and interpreting the role of public opinion in the policy-making process require, first, some clear understanding of what that public opinion is. Citizens may have crystallized views regarding specific matters of public policy—or they may not. Insofar as citizens do have meaningful policy preferences, those preferences may be internally consistent and sensibly related to their broader political values—or they may not. Public opinion touching on issues related to inequality is likely to be especially complex, given the deep and multifaceted resonance of the value of equality in American political culture.

Much popular commentary suggests that ordinary Americans find inequality both natural and unobjectionable—that the ideal of equality, despite its prominence in our official ideology, has little real resonance in American

1 Perhaps the most ambitious work along these lines is by Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson
(2002)—though, as I note in chapter 10, their statistical analyses seem to imply smaller direct
effects of public opinion on policy and larger electoral effects than one might gather from their
prose. For my own contribution to this literature, a case study of the Reagan defense buildup in
the early 1980s, see Rartels (1991).

-127-

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